Should I insist he tell me he loves me?
July 22, 2008 7:31 AM   Subscribe

I'm verbal. He's not. Is our relationship doomed?

I have been with my wonderful S.O. for nearly five years. I truly adore him and can't even begin to describe the ways he's contributed to my life; he is my best friend, is an amazing lover, and an all-around great guy.

Problem: I'm hyperverbal and expressive. not. Add past relationship trauma to the mix and you get a whole lot of insecurity.

He blames some messed-up relationships for the fact that he can't (or won't) tell me he loves me. I am too afraid of rocking the boat to insist he expresses his love in words. To clarify, he is considerate, kind, and loving in deed, just not in words. On occasion he will go into hermit mode and refuse to touch or be touched (he has ultra-sensitivity issues and insomnia that prevent us from sharing the same bedroom), but this tends to be the exception rather than the rule and I do my best to be understanding and give him space.

Still, something inside me yearns for A Declaration. I feel in my heart that if I insisted on it, he would be unable to do so. This hurts, but not as much as the thought of not having him in my life.

I guess my question is, is a relationship without verbal expressions of love doomed? How have you dealt with similar issues? If you have a hard time saying "I love you," how come? Should actions speak louder than words? Am I obsessing over something that's irrelevant?

DTMFA advice is really unnecessary, as I have no plans to break up with this person any time soon. Questions or more personal advice welcome at
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I am too afraid of rocking the boat to insist he expresses his love in words.

So you're afraid to put your feelings in words? Frankly, you don't sound that expressive yourself.

Five years into a relationship and neither of you is comfortable talking about whether you love each other -- that's very unusual and a very bad sign. Sorry for the negativity, but I assume you're looking for honest opinions.

Everyone always has an excuse for their shortcomings. Of course he'd rather attribute it to "relationship trauma" then take personal responsibility for it. Whatever happened in old relationships (which must have been more than 5 years ago) is over and done with. You're both here now the way you are now, and you have to decide whether the two of you, as you are right now, can make things work.

I know I'm not offering much here, but I don't know what there really is to say. You've presented a picture of two seemingly incompatible people, but you've ruled out breaking up. If someone in this thread can give you a neat little recipe for changing someone else's personality from inexpressive to expressive, then that'd be great -- but it usually doesn't work that way. People are the way they are; being in a relationship with someone is implying that you accept them the way they already are.

Am I obsessing over something that's irrelevant?

If you're obsessing over it, it's relevant, because you care about it. What's irrelevant is attempting to divide up the world into "the things I should care about" vs. "the things I shouldn't care about." If it's important to you, then it's important, period.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:55 AM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

You can't change other people, you can only change yourself. Since he's still struggling with issues from relationships that have been over for more than half a decade, and since he likes to occasionally not be touched, and likes to not sleep in the same bed with you... and since you are decided that you will not leave him... you must simply resign yourself to never hearing the words "I love you".

I would not live with that, but you would. So, how can this relationship be doomed?
posted by Houstonian at 7:59 AM on July 22, 2008

While my husband would say "I love you too" when I'd tell him I loved him, he would *never* say it first. (I could count on one hand the number of times he said it first, in ten years of marriage.) He claimed it was "a guy thing".

I tried to be coy about it, asking him "In ten minutes, will you say 'I love you'?" (so I could pretend it was spontaneous.) He would turn it into a joke. (Ten minutes later, we'd be eating dinner, and he'd say "I love delicious dinner, you!")

Finally, I said "Listen. I NEED YOU TO SAY 'I LOVE YOU' FIRST. No joking, no funny bits. Just say it every once in a while. I KNOW you love me, but I need to HEAR you say it."

Now he does it a few times a week. It's nice.
posted by Lucinda at 8:13 AM on July 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Very few people haven't had a messed up relationship (or more than one) in the past, it's a pretty flimsy excuse for not saying "I love you" to someone 5 years down the line of a committed relationship. Refusing to say it, as if it were physically impossible to do so, is pretty troubling when coupled with "On occasion he will go into hermit mode and refuse to touch or be touched". I couldn't live with someone who didn't recognize that that's unhealthy behavior (or recognized it, but refused to do anything about it), only you can decide if you're able to.

Actually, I'd say it's unhealthy to put up with that kind of behavior.
posted by the bricabrac man at 8:14 AM on July 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I am the talker and the husband is not. Sometimes when we're having a discussion and he gets quiet, I'll say to him: "this is what I need to hear you say..." and I'll state what I want to hear in the most clear, nonjudgmental way possible, and ask him if he agrees with that. If he agrees he'll say that to me word for word. If he doesn't agree I'll either rephrase it, or I have to come to terms with the fact that he doesn't agree what what I just said. This helps him get inside my crazy head and we understand what we need from each other.

As for the I love you's, he took a long time during our dating years to spit that out. I don't know why really but I just gave him that space. I took a leap of faith with it all. I liked where we were at the moment and didn't see the need to push it all. It didn't help that I knew in some of his earlier relationships he said it more and earlier. Sometimes that was hard. But my leap of faith worked and somewhere in our relationship he shifted and now says it repeatedly, frequently.

Relationships are organic. You're not necessarily doomed by some particular conversational style or emotional level of stability. We are constantly growing and changing. The trick is to figure out if you like doing that together.
posted by dog food sugar at 8:30 AM on July 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Well does this person acts like he loves you? I mean does he do things that show love? Remember conversations? Pays attention to you a big hug from time to time and smells your hair? I know I am not big on "saying" i love you....but past girlfriends seem to agree I do a pretty good job of "acting" like i love them....
posted by The1andonly at 8:32 AM on July 22, 2008

Has he ever told you that he loved you? If yes, I don't think it is doomed, but I think it is important to find ways to get past it. If no, then your challenges may be greater.

My SO is not very verbally expressive, like yours, though for different reasons. I am more like you. Yes, I wish he would be more expressive. Past SOs were and it is hard to not have as many verbal declarations. I am sometimes insecure and will flat out ask or fish for declarations. It's not ideal and is something I plan to bring up when we go through pre-marital counseling before our wedding - to find ways to bridge the gap. It's not about changing the person, but rather finding communication strategies (on preview: like dog food sugar) or reaching an understanding so that you both get what you need out of the relationship and can find a happy medium. Like your SO, my SO expresses it in many other ways, so it is not the end of the world to me.

There is a book, the Five Love Languages, that I think addresses what you are experiencing. I have to confess that while I own it, I've not yet read it. There's a men's version too according to Amazon.

I am too afraid of rocking the boat to insist he expresses his love in words.
There is nothing wrong with wanting him to express it in words. But insisting will not get you anywhere, since he will probably not change. Don't be afraid to "rock the boat" by letting him know how you feel though. Talking it over and insisting are different. There is nothing wrong with talking it over.

Good luck.
posted by ml98tu at 8:40 AM on July 22, 2008

If he's nonverbal, has "ultra-sensitivity issues" that make him refuse to touch or be touched, goes into hermit mode regularly enough that you have separate bedrooms, it could be your partner has Asperger's syndrome. If that's the case then (my experience tells me) the communication problems and caving will increase over time, and intimacy (physical and emotional) will decrease. Even if he's not on "the spectrum," you are subverting your own needs/desires so as not to rock the boat. How then is he your "best friend"?
posted by headnsouth at 8:41 AM on July 22, 2008

Still, something inside me yearns for A Declaration.

Sharing a life with someone for five years IS a declaration. I'm not saying you should "just get over it" - I can sympathize with your need. However, please be very cognizant that he may feel he's told you 100x over that he loves you, just not in the way you expected to hear.
posted by desjardins at 9:00 AM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Regardless of whether there's a clinical term for what your boyfriend has got, or whatever the reasons are, YOU are not getting YOUR simple basic relationship need met. And I don't think that what you're asking for is unreasonable. But even if it were sooo outlandish, if its what you need to be happy, it's not so farfetched. And we're not talking about the Holy Grail here, we're talking about feeling the love from your boyfriend. That's the number one item on the relationship checklist. If he can't bring it, and you're not willing to leave, then you need to settle for option number 3, which is what you've presented to us in your post.

But this is really not about whether or not you can live with his unwillingness to dance his vocal chords in a way that sounds like "I love you" (and I think we can safely assume that he is physically able to do this as well). You are essentially asking us if you can be happy in life with somebody who is severely traumatized by their past relationship history, is unwilling to take responsibility and deal with it, and has contributed to the less-than-growing relationship environment where you can't even talk to him about it for fear of upsetting the delicate balance. For me, having been in this situation previously, I can safely say, Hell No.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:07 AM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

But that's acting. You even said it yourself.

by "acting" I didnt mean that the feeling was not there....I would just have the behavior of a person that was in love because I was.....sometimes she would want to ask if I loved her but then she got to understand that I do things instead of talking about them......

I think is easier to say "I love you" and not mean it....than it is to have the behavior of loving somebody and actually not love fact a lot of people use the I love you card to get out of tough "did you cheat on me?" of course not....I love you.......just as a simple version of it...

what i am trying to tell the OP is that if this person does not VERBALIZE it he must communicate it in ANOTHER manner.....
posted by The1andonly at 9:36 AM on July 22, 2008

Dear anon:

Being obsessed with anything is not usually a healthy thing in relationships, including hearing A Declaration. But I think the bigger issue is that your SO is unable to say 'I love you' after 5 years together. It sounds to me like he has some serious issues to work through - what does he think is going to happen if he utters the words? Will he somehow doom the relationship? Is he giving his power away? Would he be lying (and is lying abhorrent to him?)? What is he afraid of?

The physical act of speaking obviously is not an issue, it's what the words represent, and this is an issue much deeper than just saying or hearing A Declaration. I think having a happy or healthy relationship without exploring these issues would be virtually impossible.

This does not mean DTMFA. But are you sure you're not settling for a lot less than what you want?

I wish you clarity and healing.
posted by widdershins at 10:04 AM on July 22, 2008

You're not getting what you need from your relationship. That has to be fixed, otherwise it's going to fester and poison it. And speaking as a guy who is sounds similar to your SO, he needs to work his issues out before he loses you.

Keep in mind that it's possible that you and he might not notice when he's lost you until after the fact. Often this occurs when someone similar to the SO turns up, but with none of the SO's issues, though of course they have different ones.

Also, you need to read this: Caring for Your Introvert
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:22 AM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with Brandon Blatcher and others; you simply must speak up and take care of your own needs.

After all, how can you be a good girlfriend to him if you are miserable yourself?

(I also very strongly disagree with desjardins; sharing a life for someone with five years can, unfortunately, happen for alot of reasons other than love. Habit, for example. Laziness, unwillingness to actually move on when it's really necessary, etc. Length of relationship is not a sufficient indicator.)

Also, what would you take as A Declaration? does it have to be a spoken "I love you" or would small gifts, gestures, etc do the trick? You say he is "considerate, kind, and loving in deed" which makes me think you are already getting plenty of loving gestures; if he is simply being a decent human, and not giving *you* and specifically you loving gestures, then that's not enough.

And another question- you say you are verbally expressive yourself. Are you still telling him that you love him, or maybe better telling him about things he's done or ways he's supported you that mean alot to you? He might have trouble saying "I love you" but perhaps if you give good examples of other ways to say, verbally, that he cares about you and appreciates you--- well, perhaps he might be more able to do that.
posted by nat at 11:31 AM on July 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a huge fan of that introvert article, but it has nothing to do with whether someone says "I love you." I'd imagine this guy is an introvert, but the "introvert" label doesn't excuse you from showing affection in a long-term relationship.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:46 PM on July 22, 2008

Why does "relationship trauma" make it a done deal that he can't express his love to you in words? A relationship is a two-way street, and your needs should be respected as well. And yes, you may not want to admit it, but you need to hear those words to be fully happy. Not hearing them has you worried about how solid his love for you is.

If he really does love you and you two are in for the long haul, it seems like some form of therapy or counseling is in order to deal with some difficulties he's having. Giving someone room when they occasionally don't want to be touched seems a reasonable accommodation--- accepting the one who loves you won't say they love you is not.
posted by lacedback at 3:03 PM on July 22, 2008

The introvert article isn't for the "I love you" problem, but for the OP to have better general understanding of her SO. It's really quite ok for him to need space at times and it's really no big deal. Some people are just built like that and that quality alone doesn't make them any better or any worse than anyone else. It just makes them different.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:13 PM on July 22, 2008

Try asking without using the word "love". To do this, you have to think about what loves mean to you and what it would look like if he did love you.

Then tell him that this is the relationship you would like to have with him and does he feel the same. If he says he doesn't or worse that he can't then you know you have a serious relationship problem.

If he does agree, then tell him that sometimes you are different. Just like he needs hermit time, you need reassurance about his feelings for you. While some couples use the words, "I love you", maybe the two of you could come up with a code - maybe a special kind of kiss - that could be his way of saying "I'm glad you are in my life"
posted by metahawk at 4:06 PM on July 22, 2008

I'm not sure it's the same for you and your boyfriend, but this is what I went through with my fiance and what I did about it.

First, I am extremely verbal. I'm a writer, and I think in words. I mean that I literally see the words in my head, as if they were on paper, and hear the words being read in my mind. So verbal declarations mean SO much to me.

My fiance doesn't think in words at all. He thinks in abstractions. He has to think for much longer to put feelings into words, and it is not a natural thing for him so it requires concentration. As you can imagine, when I feel particularly impassioned it gets funneled into words without my trying. For him, though, he'd have to stop and try to think, rather than just feel, to do the same thing. He feels like his emotions are obvious from the way he acts, and honestly, he's right. But since I think in words, and also because I have some past issues with people acting in one way and feeling another, I don't like having to analyze and decode someone's actions. I realize this is contrary to the "actions speak louder than words" thing. Words aren't failproof, of course, but it's easier for me to detect sincerity there, in the word choice and tone of voice and the expression while saying them. It's been my experience that people who are good at faking emotions aren't good at faking heartfelt sentiments.

He honestly can't say things well in words, though. It'd be like asking him to take a test during an emotional moment; he can only focus on one or the other, and they detract from each other. It took a while for me to come to terms with that and appreciate the other things and what they mean coming from him.

Early on, "I love you" was a problem. He said it first, at least, but he had a lot of trouble repeating it. It felt very strange for him to say that, because even his family does not say it to each other. I might be the first and only person he's ever said it to, actually. You'd think would be honored, but it just frustrated me that he would not say it more. Again, I was focusing so much on what I expected that I didn't appreciate what I got. It was really an incredible thing that he said it at all, but I didn't appreciate it until much later.

After he first said it, though, I said it all the time. I say it constantly to my family and to my closer friends. It wasn't a difficult thing to say once I knew he felt the same way and shouldn't freak out hearing it. It still jarred him to hear it for some time, though, and he would fumble around a second before returning it. He always had this expression like an eager puppy who was learning a difficult trick because he wanted to please me, and he was proud of himself because he was getting better at it and one day he'd have it down. It should have been really touching, but again: deep down, I was obsessed with wondering why it was so difficult for him to say if he knew he loved me. It just didn't make sense to me, but I was determined to try and understand. I never put down his efforts and I was encouraging.

After long enough, he got desensitized to it and he's quite comfortable saying it now. He says it all the time, and I don't have to say it first. He's not just saying it to please me, either; he's tied the emotion to saying it, rather than having to switch mental modes. He's much better at expressing his feelings than he was, too. Talking about all these things helped immensely, and he was willing to talk even though he's not in his element because he knew talking is necessary to a healthy relationship. A few times, he has taken the time to write out his feelings because he knows it helps me understand better. I've found that over the past year (we're going on six years now) that I've needed words from him less and less, because I understand and appreciate his actions better. Sometimes I think of other people as having different languages with different grammar; I can either be upset that they're not speaking my language, or I can learn their language and enjoy its nuances on their terms.

So this is my advice. First, be patient. Be honest about what you want, but do not make him feel bad while he works through things. If he makes any effort, consider it a good thing and try to avoid making him feel like it's not good enough; it will take time. Second, while you're being patient, consider that the meaning you want from his words is present in his other actions, and you're missing out on that fulfillment because, like me, you're fixated on something else. It's not wrong to want to hear that he loves you, I just wish I had appreciated the other things more at the time, because in retrospect, they meant more coming from him than the actual words did. Third, you need to rock the boat if you want anything to change. If it's important that he say, "I love you," then you can't just sweep that under the rug. Maybe desensitizing him to it will work, maybe you need to do something else. But you need to really talk about it until you have a resolution. Don't shy away from doing that work.

I think it will help if you start progressing to a middle ground and make efforts to understand how each of you is more comfortable communicating. As you learn, you will need to make efforts to translate into each others' languages; he will probably need to get used to saying "I love you" and you will probably need to internalize the idea that he's been saying it for a while, just not how you wanted. After a while of practicing though, you'll be "fluent" in each other's languages. Then you can express yourselves naturally, and the other will be able to find what they were looking for -- they won't focus on how they would have expressed it, but how they know the other does.
posted by Nattie at 10:06 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

i think he is being manipulative by not saying "i love you" - he knows you'd like to hear it. he holds so much power over you by holding back. what's so hard -if he does love you- about saying it? if he has trouble getting the words out he could write it on a card. past traumas my ass.
posted by beccyjoe at 11:26 PM on August 3, 2008

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